We still have a ways to go. While audiences seem to be able to suspend disbelief when it comes to straight actors playing gay for a few hours in a film, it has yet to be proven that this works the other way around. Lesbians are still too much of a novelty.
Since few studios are willing to risk their profits on the fickle attitude of the American public about sexuality, lesbian actresses are left with the choice of staying closeted to keep their acting options open, or coming out and being cast in only certain types of (supporting) roles where their sexuality isn’t a factor, like the quirky best friend, or the comedian/talk show host.
The most famous example of the latter is Ellen DeGeneres. When she famously came out on her sitcom almost ten years ago, she was immediately ostracized from the entertainment world, but her status and talents as a comedian eventually allowed her to make a pop culture recovery.
Her willingness to downplay her sexuality has helped, too. Audiences don’t need to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy DeGeneres on-screen; her talk show is decidedly asexual, and even her role in the romantic comedy Mr. Wrong presented her as unthreateningly (and hilariously) single at a time when her sexuality was still the worst kept secret in Hollywood.
The same can be said about the plethora of other out lesbian comedians, including Rosie O’Donnell and Sandra Bernhard; they are funny, but the audience is not asked to consider them as romantic interests for male leads. We are content merely to enjoy their comedic performances, without being asked to suspend disbelief.
Out actresses like Heather Matarazzo, Cynthia Nixon, or Portia de Rossi are usually cast in supporting/best-friend roles, characters who exist to nurture the love affairs of the more famous lead (heterosexual) actresses starring alongside them. They are never asked to sell a movie or TV show, and they don’t receive top billing at the box office. While few would question their talentâ€”Nixon was even nominated this year for a Golden Globeâ€”these women aren’t the stars carrying a Hollywood blockbuster movie.
The few out queer women who do regularly get leading lady roles are bisexual, and usually in name only. Like Angelina Jolie, who is well known for proclaiming her bisexuality and discussing her past flings with women, but never actually dates them, at least not publicly. From her failed marriage to Billy Bob Thornton to her current relationship with Brad Pitt, Jolie’s public relationships are always with men.
While this is not wholly negativeâ€”any actress who is willing to come out and admit that she likes women is a step in the right directionâ€”no one has to suspend disbelief when she plays straight, romantic roles in movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) or Taking Lives (2004) because her public image is as straight as any other lead actress.
British actress Saffron Burrows can play romantic roles in heterosexual romances, as she did in Troy, but partly because, although she has publicly stated her bisexuality, she keeps her private life very, very private.
All of this harkens back to the Golden Age of filmmaking, when Hollywood had its own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Now that their public image is no longer tied to the latest film, several of these actors and actressesâ€”from Tab Hunter to Katherine Hepburn–have been outed in recent memoirs and biographies about their lives. But then, as now, the perception was that being open about their sexuality would have been extremely damaging to their careers.
But there are signs that we’re moving in the right direction.
Increasing numbers of actresses–like Nixon, de Rossi, and most recently, Kristanna Lokenâ€”are coming out as lesbian or bisexual, something that was previously a rare occurrence.
Nine years ago, lesbian romantic comedies like Saving Face or Imagine Me & You would probably never have made it into theatres. Now, although they’re enjoying only marginal commercial success, at least they’re being made (and the rise of DVDs mean they will likely go on to generate some financial success). As lesbian movies begin to make more money at the box office and on DVD, it’s likely that more of them will get made, and more importantly, seen.
And as Americans see more lesbians, both fictional and real, on their TV and movie screens, it will hopefully become easier for audiences to believe that having a girlfriend off-screen is as irrelevant as having a boyfriend when it comes to their acting ability.